Monday, September 16, 2013

Rules, Religion, and Free Will--and Cognitive Science, Part I: Free Will

Free Will
The concept of free will is foundational to the American ethos of the rugged individualist, who, purged through wilderness survival of ancient religious and political corruption by power, lives out an egalitarian and de-theologized Protestant ethic.

I was confronted with that notion in this book review (of The Last of the Mohicans), although I take full responsibility for my interpretation and thought processes.

Even though the ethos of which I'm speaking has roots in American Protestantism, it also has resonance for other traditions.  But at first the bulk of immigrants consisted of Protestants, giving them the first crack at what the American ethos would be.

That rugged-individualist aspect of the American ethos, forged in the era of Manifest Destiny, was subject to the prejudices as well as the heroics of the time.  The odds to be fought and difficulties to be overcome included prevailing over Native Americans.  That particular narrative of history and character has come under revisionist challenge, yet I dare say is unofficially alive and well in the hearts of many--not only those who would defiantly champion it but also those who would abjure it.  It lingers not so far under the surface in assumptions about the national character, for example, in our detective fiction, on which Adam Gopnik has a fascinating piece in The New Yorker's 2013 Summer Fiction Issue.  

A case in point: Charles Seabrook, author of the "Wild Georgia" column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote the following in his June 29, 2013 column on how the national parks protect our cultural heritage:

Mystery writer Nevada Barr, a former park ranger whose novels are set in national parks, sums up in Sierra Club Magazine the feelings of many park lovers: “Our (national) parks are the home of our wildness, our pioneer spirit. Seeing them we know we can do much, go far, withstand the harshest punishment. We know we can make it; we can survive and thrive and flourish.”

With a foundational narrative rooted in heroic individualism, no wonder the great majority of Americans went ballistic regarding New York Mayor Bloomberg's anti-supersize soda initiative.  The phenomenon certainly wasn't limited to Protestants.  The uproar also cut across the liberal-conservative divide, uniting almost everybody in opposition to Bloomberg's perceived tampering with our free will.

Self-discipline in our culture is usually seen in terms of free will; that is, using one's own will power to do what is right and avoid doing wrong.

Free will is experienced as voluntary choice made within the realm of one's own awareness or consciousness.  The Web definition of free will is: "the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one's own discretion."  As an adjective, the definition is: "given readily, voluntary: 'free-will offerings.'"  Mirriam-Webster Online says: "Voluntary choice or decision; 'I do this of my own free will,'" and "freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention."

Now that I've looked a little at free will, the upcoming section will focus on rules, and on how we think of rules in relation to free will. 

(The reader may click here to view Parts I - IV as one continuous post, or here to go to Part II.)

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